On a recent ride on Ft. Lauderdale’s New River, the first thing that struck me was the amazing variety and activity. Crowding the shores of the river are downtown office buildings and condos, restaurants and historic districts, a performing arts center, science museum, parks and homes. The clear, deep water was crowded with kayaks, 100-foot yachts, construction barges, manatees, water taxis and sightseeing vessels.
Water Taxi of Ft. Lauderdale owner Bill Walker was taking me to see the spectacular western part of the river. But first, we would have to sail past the downtown railroad bridge that, far too often, is closed. Since it sits just 4 feet above the water, this completely shuts down the river, which is just what happened as we began to motor to the west.
The bridge horn blew, the span came down and, about 10 minutes later, a freight train rumbled through. Once the train had passed, we waited several more minutes for the bridge’s automated mechanisms to churn and creak it open before we were able to continue our trip.
While we were waiting, five or six vessels of different sizes and types had queued up behind us, trying to hold position in the narrow waterway. As the bridge opened, we could see a similar waiting line on the other side, led by a sheriff’s boat.
Once beyond this obstacle, we motored past the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the science museum, IMAX theater, Himmarshee Village, history museum, Esplanade Park and Cooley’s Landing.
Along both shores and reaching back into neighborhoods we saw numerous minor waterways holding some of the almost 5,000 docks on the western half of the river. I soon realized that the New River, in all its complexity, defined Ft. Lauderdale. Without the river and the port it created, the city would be just another suburb of Miami. It might not even exist as anything more than a concentration of strip malls and tract housing.
But I still hadn’t realized the river’s real importance to the area. Eight miles inland from where it touches the Atlantic, we came upon the region’s engine of prosperity. It was the largest marine industrial complex I had ever seen in my 40 years as a maritime professional. Stretching over several miles were boatyards, marinas, huge paint sheds, and industrial capability of all kinds. Mammoth lifts capable of hoisting a 330-ton vessel from the water crowded alongside warehouses holding an endless variety of equipment and supplies.
Ft. Lauderdale prides itself on being “The Yachting Capital of the World.” This industrial complex, with its dozens of large and small businesses, is what makes that claim real. It’s not enough to have good weather and fancy marinas. “The World’s Capital” has to be able to stand behind that claim with the ability to repair, paint, outfit and maintain its fleet. A fleet some have estimated at more than 50,000 vessels. This economic engine contributes almost $9 billion each year to the local economy.
Sadly, all of this is threatened by All Aboard Florida’s proposal to effectively close off the western reaches of the New River for most of every business day. Even under its current operating scheme (which, incidentally, violates federal regulations in several ways), the bridge severely restricts use of the river and hinders economic growth. Water taxis, for example, won’t serve attractions to the west for fear of being full of passengers and stuck behind a bridge that has mysteriously closed for an hour.
The obstacle the bridge poses to the industrial centers is already intolerable. Its unpredictable and extended closures delay movements to and from boatyards, throw off schedules and increase costs. Closing down the river much more often would be devastating.
What makes this all particularly sad is that there are win-win alternatives. The river has to stay where it is, but trains could go farther west over other bridges, or even on a new rail corridor being considered along Route 27.
Alternatively, a new bridge that allowed much of the river traffic to pass beneath it — even when closed — could be built. And the state of Florida has determined that a rail tunnel under the New River would be feasible.
Would such alternatives be more expensive for the railroad than continuing to use an old bridge that was permitted long before the area’s explosive growth? Yes. But by refusing to even consider such alternatives, All Aboard Florida is saying it is happy to impose much greater costs on the citizens of Ft. Lauderdale and Broward County.
Finding a win-win solution that improves transportation while preserving Ft. Lauderdale’s essence and economic engine requires local and state leaders to take a broader view. All Aboard Florida’s proposal could have some positive impacts. But these benefits, that include profits for some, must not come at a price the rest of South Florida can’t afford to pay.
Dana Goward is the former maritime navigation authority for the United States and a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain. As a member of the federal Senior Executive Service, he had responsibility for permitting and regulating the more than 18,000 bridges that crossed the nation’s navigable waters. Comments on this essay are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.